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Speed Racer Print E-mail
Tuesday, 09 December 2008
ImageThe Wachowski’s first film after the Matrix trilogy was a costly ($120 million dollar) box office disappointment, but it’s vivid and imaginative design work, should find admirers in animation and CGI buffs, and it’s general air of family-friendly silliness, should make it popular with younger audiences. 

The Racer family is an earnest, upright bunch, dedicated to auto racing, in support of their accomplished son, Rex (Scott Porter).  Rex leaves the family for the big leagues and is thereafter plagued by rumors implying that he’s corrupt and in league with criminal forces.  During a cross-country race, Rex’s car loses control in a cave, crashes, and explodes in flames.  Years later, Rex’s younger brother, Speed (Emile Hirsch), who idolized Rex, has developed into a top racecar driver, whose skills clearly surpass those of his brother, whose memory he still honors.  In an early race Speed slows down just as he approaches the finish line, in order to leave Rex’s longstanding record unbroken. 

After his recent near-record-breaking performances, Speed’s talents are noticed by monolithic corporate sponsors and he’s nearly snapped up by Royalton (Roger Allam) who takes Speed and his family on a showy tour of his vast company headquarters, and tries to sell Speed on the opulence, indulgence, and cutting-edge technology that will be a part of his new life, should he decide to sign with Royalton Industries.  The smarmy Royalton oozes charm in a snake-like seduction, but when Speed turns him down, he quickly reveals his true face, and attempts to bully Speed into joining by threatening him and the Racer family, calling him a naïve child who needs to grow up and understand how big business is done.  Royalton tells him that for the last fifty years, the coveted Grand Prix has been rigged, with all the main drivers collaborating on the fix.  Speed finds it hard to believe Royalton’s allegations and walks away, leaving the Racer family open to attack from trumped up lawsuits and automotive sabotage from Royalton’s team of drivers. 

The mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) is working for an organization that is trying to uncover Royalton’s dirty dealings and recruits Speed, in order to save fellow driver Togokahn (Rain), who’s ready to testify and is beset by Royalton’s thugs.  Through their combined efforts, Togokahn is able to finish the perilous Casa Cristo 5000 race, but it turns out he was manipulating Speed and Rex in order to raise the stock price and visibility of his father’s company and has no intention of testifying.  It’s up to Speed to race the coming Grand Prix in the hopes of undoing the fix already in place, by defeating all of Royalton’s corrupt drivers, while all of the world watches. While the Matrix films were heavily inspired by anime, those films were original creations.  Here, the Wachowskis turn their attention to adapting an existing anime series (the 1966-1967 Japanese cartoon series “Mach Go Go Go” which was released in the US with the “Speed Racer” moniker) into a feature film.  It’s faithfully replicates character, costume, and car designs, as well as tells the kind of stories that the original series told, but its execution is vastly different.  While the automotive gymnastics in the original cartoon constantly strained credulity, the film amplifies those aspects in a work that’s clearly not meant to mirror any tangible reality.  The entire movie is a live-action cartoon as it were—every shot is a green-screen shot, with real actors and props, but computer generated environments, cars, stunts, etc.  It takes the “300” concept of a story occurring in a highly artificial, stylized environment but replaces the grit and grain of “300” with a candy-colored, glowing, fluorescent world, where every locale and costume is saturated in a thousand different hues and cars leap, flip, regenerate blown tires in mid-air while they zip around impossible, loop-de-loop race courses that could only exist in a cartoon, or in the mind of an imaginative child.

The film’s style can be summed up in one phrase:  constant movement.  Whether it’s news commentators spinning 360 degrees as they talk, while simultaneously wiping horizontally past the camera, revealing a different background or the camera swinging and zooming back and forth between cars that are racing side-by-side, rapid cutting, or flashy action within static shots, it’s a completely restless, hyperactive movie.  If it were occurring in a realistic environment, it’d be completely exhausting, but the tacky design of the thing, creates an emotional distance, that prevents one from becoming dizzy at the pace of the editing.

While it probably seemed a bizarre, airless kind of process for the actors, they acquit themselves fairly well.  Susan Sarandon is all heart as Mom Racer and John Goodman (despite a strange, post-plastic surgery, poached egg appearance) reliably delivers a warm, avuncular performance.  Speed’s character is tirelessly noble, and as such is a bit of a stiff, but Hirsch (who is quite fetching while sporting jet black hair) gives him an emotional moment or two that helps us care about his crusade and helps Speed from becoming an entirely cardboard character…He’s more of a bas relief.  Christina Ricci (who many have remarked, already looks like an anime character) is energetic as Trixie, though the role doesn’t really give her much to do.

One’s interest in the film is dependent on how much of this artificiality and CGI hyperactivity one can stand.  At times, it’s a bit like being pummeled with a deluxe one million color Crayola crayon set, and this cartoonishness drains the humanity out of the actors, reducing everything to a gimmick or special effect.  At 135 minutes, the length is a bit burdensome, especially since the novelty of the film’s style wears off after about 40 minutes.  About 90 minutes in, your brain has completely settled into the film’s color and pacing, which allows you to go along with it enough the cheer the ending, but many will have slumped down in their seats by that point, waiting for it all to be over.  If one goes into it, with the expectation that it’s a new kind of animated film, and not a live-action film, it helps.

Sidekicks Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his Chimpanzee, Chim Chim (who is played by two chimpanzees, Willy and Kenzie) are more entertaining, and consume less screen time than one would expect, and the two simians that play Chim Chim are so incredibly expressive, that one looks forward to their wild reactions to the on-screen events.  Michael Giacchino’s score is effective, though a bit undistinguished, and has brief quotations of the “Speed Racer” TV series theme sprinkled throughout.  An end credits mash up featuring sampled sections of the Japanese and English TV series theme and dialogue quotes with a hip-hop background is also more fun, then it probably sounds.  While it’s certainly not recommended for all audiences, those with an interest in animation, graphics, and a strong tolerance for artifice, will probably find much to enjoy in the technical artistry.  Kids, would seem to be the ideal audience for the film. 

So, how does the Blu-ray release look?  In a word, stunning.  “Speed Racer” arguably has the most demanding, wide-ranging color palette of any BD release thus far, and combined with the rapid cutting and flashy camera moves, probably gave the BD compressionists and disc authors a series of massive technical hurdles.  The BD release captures every day-glow color in densely saturated splendor, with fine, crisp detail and a remarkable level of stability.  There are a few brief instances of moiré or line shimmer at extremely fine lines, but these are exceptions, to what is a thrilling image transfer.  Much has been made of Warner’s decision to include a plain Jane Dolby Digital audio track on the disc and not an uncompressed (PCM, TrueHD, or DTS-HD MA) high-resolution track.  Given the immense amount of bit room needed for the demanding video info, I would imagine that there simply was not enough room left on the disc for one of the HD audio options, and that to do so would have compromised the picture quality in some way.  The Dolby Digital track is perfectly acceptable, with vibrant surround and LFE usage and crisp sound effects, but the track does sound a smidge little less detailed than one would expect.  It’s a very good track, but it’s missing a certain je ne sais quoi.  The featurettes total around 50 minutes and are rather average, and are primarily technical in nature.  The digital copy is an unnecessary inclusion, and the game is a typical-standard def DVD game, similar to an obstacle course, and it isn’t very exciting.

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